Saws scream, light flashes, and sparks fly. It’s all in a day’s study in welding class at Highlands College of Montana Technological University.
This semester, students in instructor Dennis Noel’s class are full-steam ahead on a new project. If they stay on track, they’ll be done by the end of the year.
The students are transforming sheets of steel into locomotive smokers, and when they finish they’ll take home works of art that are ready to slow-cook steaks at the next barbecue.
“We just keep chugging along,” says 19-year-old senior Haley Frey.
Each of the smokers carries the signature of its artist. The handle to lift the grill cover on Frey’s is an intricate elk antler, designed by pounding and shaping steel in the shop’s forge.
Frey, who hails from Darby, has been welding with her grandfather since she was eight years old. By the time she was in high school, she’d fallen head-over-heels for welding.
“It’s kind of a stress reliever, the melting of the metal. It helps me clear my head,” she says. “It’s my passion."
The smokers will be complete with a propane burner to heat a pan of wood pellets, three heat gauges, a meat thermometer, and a vent to adjust the flow. You guessed it, the vent’s on the smokestack. Bending the metal round forms the wheels.
The project allows students to run with their creative instincts, Noel said. That’s the side of the craft he most enjoys. But, the complex creation teaches what’s practical, too.
“The train project builds a lot of creative thinking and problem-solving skills. And that’s what employers need. They need someone who can think and come up with a solution,” he said.
After she finishes college in the spring, Frey dreams of someday opening her own metal fabrication shop.
Carefully measuring lengths of square steel stock for his train’s cowcatcher, 23-year-old senior Matt Fouch said Highlands gives students who weren’t made for life seated at a desk the means to pursue their own kind of higher education.
“It fits someone who’s better at learning hands-on,” he said. “It’s the highlight of your day.”
Fouch shows off the cross he made from horseshoes, adorned in a rainbow mosaic of colors generated at varying levels of heat.
“You get to make cool Christmas presents,” he says, and returns to work on his cowcatcher.
Over 19 years teaching at the college, Noel’s classes have cut, bent and tacked together everything from the sign for the Ringing Rocks formation near Pipestone to the ornamental benches at the Old Lexington Gardens.
You can’t go anywhere in town without seeing their creations.
The class has already feasted on the bratwurst of their toil, smoked to perfection in the prototype locomotive Noel built as an example. Next semester, the class will take a deep dive into the science of metallurgy, and forge knives from two kinds of steel.
It’s a lot of work, but there are no sad faces behind the welding shields in Noel’s class.
“They have good time out there,” Noel says. “It looks like it’s just play, but they’re really learning.”
When they’re done, his students will own the only locomotive smokers on the block, and made from their own bare hands, too.
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